Reclaiming government by the American people

May 17, 2012 12:00 AM

by Paul Von Ward

For the past fifteen years I have focused my work on interdisciplinary, historical/scientific/spiritual articles and books. However, our increasingly complex society makes it clear that we cannot discuss the human potential and our place in the cosmos without considering the values and methods that shape our communal institutions.
This requires our attention to the politics of government.

Based on my early career as a military officer and government official, I wrote my first book (Dismantling the Pyramid: Government by the People) 30 years ago. Although now out of print, it is perhaps more relevant today than when I wrote it.
In calling attention to what was written in the book, I now reveal the personal part of the story, not because I'm proud of it, but because I believe all of us gain insights along the way that can be useful now in life.

My story began more than 50 years ago when I became a part of our government and political system.

As young Congressional interns in Washington, Bob Graham (later Governor and US Senator) and I represented a new Florida "political protege" program. In 1959 we met President Eisenhower and Senator John Kennedy among others.
We interns learned how our Congressmen responded to their constituents needs, at least enough to insure their re-election. We also witnessed the early stages of a growing, pernicious cadre of corporate and special-interest-group lobbyists arriving in Washington (and had sumptuous dinners with some).

Today, that cadre of corporate lobbyists is literally the 4th branch of the American government. This "institution" is crucial to the success or failure of a bipartisan deficit reduction strategy to keep the United States from going bankrupt.
This became apparent when leaders of the President's commission confronting the challenge released their draft ideas in mid-November 2010. The resulting furor stimulated in all parts of society, particularly corporate and special interests who benefit from the status quo. This motivated me to write about my view that the problem cannot be solved by those who created it.

Back to the story: Returning to Florida State University, I continued my youthful interest in student and local politics, but then felt drawn to some sort of national service. The following year I voted for the John Kennedy who had inspired me as I attended his Senate committee hearings.
As so many thousands of others like me, I was inspired by his challenge to "do for the nation". With Vietnam a dim image on the horizon, I aborted my doctoral plans in psychology, took a masters degree, and enrolled in the US Navy's officer candidate school. After three-and-a-half years of active duty, with a pending assignment to command a "Swift Boat" on the Mekong, President Johnson appointed me along with a couple of dozen 20-somethings as new Foreign Service Officers.

As the intern from rural Northwest Florida I was a very naive idealist. But much of what I learned in the subsequent thirty years can be found in Dismantling the Pyramid.
It was written in 1980, the year I resigned from my FSO position in the US Department of State, frustrated in my efforts to do the job I had both chosen and had been assigned to do. Our federal institutions were clearly out-of-step with our nation's self-declared destiny. I saw further decline in governmental integrity and its increase in self-protection and self-perpetuation continue for another fifteen years during my private non-profit work for 15 years in DC. And things have only gotten worse since.

In both my government and my private, but government-supported work, I was dismayed by experiences in what we called the "iron triangles" that benefit all the players: government employees, Congressmen/women and their staffs, and the corporate/non-profit private sector.
Working in sync, we established mutually reinforcing flows of power and funding regardless of their benefit or irrelevance to society's most pressing needs. This doesn't mean all is wasted, but large hunks of it only benefit a few.

I served the State Department in four overseas assignments. However, the part of my work that is relevant to this story occurred while I was in Washington. A few senior officials in State and the Civil Service Commission wanted to stimulate a movement to reform the way "inside Washington" worked. They believed a few public servants with research on human psychology and organizational theory, with strong political leadership, could make "Washington" leaner and more effective. They hoped rising young officers in key departments, with outside professional advice, could be catalysts for reform.
As part of that initiative, I was sent to Harvard University's MPA program to study research on government renewal and work with scholars who might serve in advisory roles as our reform initiatives got under way. Suffice it to say, our reform strategies did not succeed.

At this point, I must make it clear that many individual government employees are dedicated public servants who also recognize the problems described here. Most elected and appointed officials start with high ideals, but the system conditions people to compromise in many situations in order to keep their perks.
While I think change can "start" from inside, I still believe, as I did in 1980, that the needed reform of our overblown, deadlocked, national government cannot succeed unless the President and the Congress are shown a new direction by a "deeply-rooted consensus" of fired-up citizens from all levels of society.

In Dismantling the Pyramid, I proposed a nationwide movement similar to the Committees of Correspondence idea developed by Massachusetts Samuel Adams prior to the American Revolution. This group's cooperation among the 13 colonies helped to create the confederation that led to our independence as a nation.
A citizen’s effort like the recent Tea Party activists' early initiatives had such a potential. However, that movement came under the control of the corporate and financial interests who could benefit from its voters providing cover for their agenda.

Conversely, it is the "civil society" that must insure government officials and financial elites in all sectors are held responsible for the overall public interest. This kind of a civic-minded government, with the public's best interest at heart, had been the objective of our Civil Service System created (along with subsequent legislation) in 1872 to replace the "spoils system".
In the old system, government employees supported the politicians who arranged for their jobs. The Civil Service goal was that all except a few appointed officials would fulfill their responsibilities based on professional merit and would remain apolitical. Our evolving human nature, manifested inside and outside government, has made that goal unattainable.

Since the 1900s we have only added new layers of bureaucracy onto increasing fragmentation of government functions. As new programs are added, old ones are left to their own devices with regular tax-payer transfusions to keep them alive. No one applies public tests of continuing relevance or effectiveness. Officials are afraid to prioritize to make sure pressing new programs replace out-dated offices and staffs.
They simply ask Congress for more money for all. Keeping these outmoded or low priority functions continues because each has special interest groups lobbying along side federal staff going up Capitol Hill.

After World War II, several initiatives were taken to reduce its size and revitalize the federal bureaucracy by eliminating unnecessary jobs and wasteful programs. The 1947-48 Hoover Commission made an unsuccessful effort. Subsequently, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon initiated abortive government reforms.
Jimmy Carter was the last President who attempted (tepidly and failed) to address the kinds of fundamental problems that produce bureaucratic bloat and overly expensive programs. Since then, Presidents have had little influence over an over-weaning bureaucracy, a deep-pockets lobby, and partisanship that immobilizes the Congress. This special-interest system produces national laws and administrative regulations that directly benefit their financial backers.

My view on this problem goes back to a cost-saving project I was given as a young officer in the US Navy and similar research in my Washington jobs during the 1970's. It was reinforced by 15 years of work in the government-supported private sector.
I came to the conclusion that about 30% of the personnel and administrative resources of every department was simply wasted. This wasteful redundancy does not include the recent findings of inspectors-general reports on egregious waste in defense and other agency contracts in wars, overseas programs, and domestic programs. Keep in mind that what auditors call waste is really money in the pockets of corporations and contractors who in turn donate part of it to Congressional campaigns.

The results are departments and agencies focused on self-preservation. Overlapping responsibilities and strong fiefdoms that are literally unmanageable. Nobody is really in charge. To avoid rocking the boat, everyone takes the easy way out.
This overly-expensive government, particularly given its tawdry benefits to the general public, pays a behind-the-moat bureaucracy, largely directed by officials acting as surrogates of the financial backers who insured their election or appointment.

Thus, we have created a self-perpetuating institution that we call Washington Government. Its implicit purpose is to maintain its octopus-like arms as mechanisms to convert and re-allocate large percentages of the nation's common resources (its human labor, nature's riches, and citizens' creativity) to a small percentage of US citizens and international corporations.
This process includes not only the transfer of general tax revenue. Even more important is the use (or non-use) of regulatory power to economically favor certain groups, particularly the largely amoral financial and corporate sectors.

These modern-day elites are much like the self-centered, parasitic lords and ladies who surrounded the kings and queens of old Europe. They will betray others and their own integrity to keep their "royal" and financial status.
To avoid something like the French Revolution, a few goodies are given to the working and poor parts of the electorate through bogus tax breaks and social services. This makes them feel they get something for their passive support for the status quo and deters them from investigating the huge subsidies given to the most wealthy few.

In this lapse of values like equality and fairness, no one can now stay behind personally comfortable walls with people like ourselves and ask someone else -- politicians and other "leaders" -- to solve the problems that we all let fester, thinking we were immune to catastrophes that only affected others.
The cooperation and compromises we need to "change Washington" will not happen until "we the people" demonstrate that it can be done in our local communities. Wherever we live, we must model it before we demand it of others.

Only private citizens can develop a new consensus about the future role of America in the world and its collective responsibility for the use of our common heritage to benefit all Americans and the world at large. All of us must learn again that when a singular government becomes the central orchestrator of a complex society and distorts its laws to benefit the few, it will kill "the goose that lays the golden eggs".
Best wishes for your initiatives in your own community. When they flourish locally they will connect with similar ideas, creating the consensus for a New America.

Paul Von Ward can be contacted by email at

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